Located in a nondescript storefront on a bustling cobblestone street in Omaha’s main entertainment district, the Old Market, lies a key player in Omaha’s vaunted music scene. Hidden behind the vintage light fixtures, bland brown sign, and colorful album covers displayed in the front windows is Homer’s Music & Gifts. It’s been making music accessible for nearly 50 years and is the oldest record store in operation in the state.
Omaha is a city that is regularly underestimated. Its nationally renowned indie rock scene shouldn’t flourish here in the land of redneck Republicans (with a human thumb of a governor), the whispering wealth of the Berkshire billionaires, and this small city on the plains. And yet, Nebraska’s largest metro is home to the renowned Saddle Creek Records. Named for a midtown creek and road, SCR was the label that birthed The Faint, Bright Eyes, Cursive and tons of fresh new acts on its ever-expanding roster.
So why is this the case? Omahans possess a peculiar love for their under-the-radar cool city. As such, supporting local shops, restaurants, venues, artists, and labels is a natural extension of hometown, and adopted hometown, pride. Truly, Omahans know they aren’t Chicago, Kansas City, or New York, and they’re happy about it. They take local love to a whole new level.
And how does Homer’s fit into all of this? I chatted with Jon Oschner from the Hi-Fi House for an insider’s breakdown of Omaha’s overall music scene. Jon is what they call a “good listener” at his place of employment, a gem in the hip Blackstone District that serves as part music library and part community-building space. Their mission is “to elevate recorded music to the level of fine art and to give a stage to the appreciation of it.”
Independent is the key word to describe Omaha’s music tableau; it’s a watermark of the scene here. There’s the aforementioned, well-celebrated indie rockers that bring the most credit to the area. But that’s not all that’s growing in the fields of Nebraska. There’s a small metal scene, underground experimental music scene, hip-hop scene, and more. According to Oschner, these pockets could use more collaboration and that is where Homer’s comes in. It provides a place for overlapping, a common ground.
With music, seeing a show and buying a record are like two sides of the same coin. But, Oschner says, “Actually buying a record is a longer, lasting interaction. Essentially, you can play it again and again, it stays with you, and you can pass it on. Where as a show is one night of connection instead of a longer relationship. And since people tend to feel good about supporting a local business, Homer’s is there to deliver that option and develop musical interactions with roots in a local shop.”
Homer’s has always had and will always have a large local section and will continue to promote local releases. They’ve been part of the machine that helps bands and artists break into the national market. Plus, over the years, many local musicians have worked there; Homer’s has helped to give them a different insight into the music business with a look at marketing and selling one’s music.
And in this day and age, with the resurgence of vinyl, it’s even more important to have a strong local record store. Despite the growth of vinyl sales the past decade, Omaha saw three local record shops close their doors within the last year. Almost Music, Brad Smith’s Blackstone District spot, shuttered in January. February saw Drastic Plastic’s downtown store close. And west Omaha’s Earwax, located in the Millard neighborhood, which so desperately needed a dose of culture, unfortunately closed in March. In light of these closures, Homer’s resilience becomes even more important.
But that resilience hasn’t come without a cost. The Homer’s empire once extended to 13 stores in Omaha, Lincoln, and beyond, but now is focused in their one remaining, and original, location in Omaha’s Old Market. For MarQ Manner, store manager, it’s actually a good thing to have one spot to concentrate on and pour all his energy into. Manner said that “being an independent record store over the past few decades have seen a lot of struggle and triumph. We had to adjust to internet sales, online streaming, big box stores like Best Buy selling music and a lot more. [But] being an independent store has always allowed us to have fun and be a little more outside the box in how we do things and what we do in the store. I always tell people that it's not any of the stores that you have seen in iconic movies such as High Fidelity and Empire Records, but it is a little of all of those.”
Now on its 12th year, Record Store Day has also helped to bring back vinyl as a viable medium. At Homer's, it has continually been the biggest sales day of the year for the brick and mortar shop. In 2019, according to Manner, Record Store Day “broke all records and [Homer’s] had longer lines and better sales than ever before. It’s a very important event and organization that promotes record stores year round.” And, notably, Homer’s was one of the original founders of this day of vinyl celebration.
Homer’s is also important to Omaha because of the memories made there in store. From buying music to working there, the shop continues to play a big part for both new generations exploring music for the first time, to those who have been patrons for decades. Every day, employees at Homer’s hear “I am so thankful you are still here” or “We don’t have a place like this where I live.” Many in-store pop up performances have created lasting memories over the years, too, as acts as varied as Patti Smith and Moby have graced the Homer’s platform.
What Homer’s does best is provide a place for all of the elements of the city’s vibrant and varied music scenes to coalesce. It’s a place where small, niche bands are as celebrated as huge, national acts. Homer’s is a beacon to the world that Omaha is a music city and shouldn’t be discounted. It conjures a sense of nostalgia for older patrons and opens up a whole new auditory world to younger generations. With any luck, Omahans will be making memories at Homer’s and supporting the local music scene for another fifty years.